Celebrating the genius of Scottish inventor James Watt in 2019

This month will mark 250 years since the patent for James Watt’s separate steam condenser was issued.

Friday, 19th April 2019, 8:03 pm
Updated Friday, 19th April 2019, 8:09 pm
Sir William Beecheys portrait of Watt can be viewed at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, which is partly named in his honour. (Pic: Information Services, Heriot Watt University)
Sir William Beecheys portrait of Watt can be viewed at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, which is partly named in his honour. (Pic: Information Services, Heriot Watt University)

A Scottish engineer and inventor who changed the world, August is also the bicentenary of his death.

So Historic Environment Scotland has co-ordinated a year of events to celebrate the man who powered the industrial revolution.

In Watt’s native Scotland, museums, galleries and professional bodies will all be marking the year.

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Given James Watts close association with the University of Glasgow, and its two James Watt chairs  Professors Colin McInnes and Asen Asenov (pictured)  a host of events has been lined up at the uni. These will kick off on Wednesday, June 5, with a James Watt Symposium in Kelvin Gallery and a Watt lecture in the Sir Charles Wilson Lecture Theatre. (Pic: University of Glasgow)

And a website – jameswatt.scot – has been launched to promote the events and highlight Watt’s many achievements.

His success was so great that a unit of power was named after Watt in his honour – and every light bulb in the world bears his initial.

But this year will give people a chance to learn even more, with Historic Environment Scotland (HES) leading the way.

Dr Miles Oglethorpe, HES head of industrial heritage, said: “Our partners are working on lots of activities to celebrate Watt and his achievements.

From July 10 to September 8, the painting James Watt and the Steam Engine: the Dawn of the 19th Century by James Eckford Lauder will be on display at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh. (Pic: National Galleries of Scotland)

“Hopefully, our efforts will make people more aware of this great Scot and his amazing contributions that changed the world.

“Key partners in the group have included Glasgow and Heriot Watt Universities, Falkirk Community Trust, Glasgow Life, Inverclyde Council, Dundee Heritage Trust, the National Galleries of Scotland, the National Museums of Scotland, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland.

“One of our most active partners has also been the charity, The Friends of Kinneil in Bo’ness.

“Watt tested his prototype new engine at a workshop, the remains of which can still be found next to Kinneil House. And events will be staged there later this year.

A new exhibition on Scottish inventor James Watt is launching this month at Stirlings Engine Shed. James Watt: Power to the World will run from Thursday, April 25, to Friday, August 23. (Pic: Historic Environment Scotland)

“However, we’d also like to hear from schools and other community groups doing their own activities to mark Watt’s achievements.

“They can get in touch through the website or by tweeting @watt2019.”

Later this month, a very special milestone in Watt’s career will be celebrated.

Miles explained: “Our exhibition at the Engine Shed in Stirling will open on April 25 – the same date 250 years ago when Watt was issued with his patent for the separate steam condenser.

Verdant Works Museum currently has a working Boulton & Watt engine on display, one of only two in Scotland, the other being at the NMS in Edinburgh. And on Sunday, April 28, from 11am to 4pm, the Dundee museum will host a special Innovative Inventors family day. (Pic: Erika Stevenson)

“The exhibition will look at Watt’s many achievements but also his significance in the modern context.

“He supercharged the industrial revolution and it can be argued that he changed the world.

“Watt is still revered in the scientific world but the exhibition is geared at all ages, particularly children and young people who may not know about his work.”

Miles had hoped that, as the Scottish Government does not have a themed year for 2019, Watt would fit the bill nicely.

He added: “I suggested that it should be the year of Watt Ever and we could get Catherine Tait to launch it.

“Sadly, it didn’t happen but I’m hoping we will do something on that theme around the anniversary of Watt’s death in August!

“It’s shaping up to be a great year though.

“Thanks to our many partners, it’s really building up a head of steam with a series of events befitting of James Watt’s genius.”

Among the activities already planned are exhibitions at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, the Engine Shed centre in Stirling and the Riverside Museum in Glasgow; celebratory events at Kinneil House and Kennetpans in Clackmannanshire, once home to Scotland’s first Boulton and Watt engine; and the reopening of the McLean Museum and its Watt Library – to be renamed The Watt Institution – in his hometown of Greenock, after a major refurbishment.

The University of Glasgow, where Watt once worked and where there are now two James Watt chairs, Professors Colin McInnes and Asen Asenov, is also gearing up to celebrate its famous son. Rightly proud of its former instrument maker, the university is keen to celebrate his life.

Colin, the university’s professor of engineering science, explained: “James Watt’s contribution to engineering cannot be understated, key to which was the efficiency he delivered through the separate steam condenser.

“It was while working as a scientific instrument maker at the university that Watt first hit on the idea of making steam power more efficient.

“He was walking across Glasgow Green one Sunday morning when he had his eureka moment.

“It was a long struggle to turn it into a commercial success but Watt never gave up and was determined to turn his dream into a reality.

“His initial is now stamped on every light bulb, measuring its electrical power but also reminding us of the sheer intellectual light he brought to the world.

“Watt’s life is an inspiration and we want to celebrate that, while also looking at the challenges the future holds.”

An exhibition will be staged at the university from May. Other events include a public lecture and symposium on June 5, with a bicentenary celebration dinner the following day.

Diary of events already planned

Watt’s life and achievements will be celebrated across Scotland this year.

And we’ve compiled a short diary of events to make sure you don’t miss some of the highlights, as follows:

April 25: James Watt – Power to the World Exhibition, The Engine Shed, Stirling.

April 25: Watt A Great Idea! STICK conference at The Engine Shed, Stirling.

April 28: Family Day: Innovative Inventors! Verdant Works Museum, Dundee.

May to September: James Watt, the Exhibition, University of Glasgow Library.

May 16: The Thing Is (talk), Verdant Works Museum.

May 31: Watt A Celebration, Trades Hall, Glasgow.

June: Northern Lights exhibition, featuring Watt, at National Library of Scotland. June 1: The Power to change the world: James Watt (1736-1819) A Life in 50 Objects, free talk and book signing, Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock.

June 5: James Watt Symposium, Kelvin Gallery, Glasgow.

June 5: Royal Academy of Engineering and Royal Society of Edinburgh Annual James Watt Public Lecture, Sir Charles Wilson Lecture Theatre, University of Glasgow.

June 6: James Watt Bicentenary Celebration Dinner, Bute Hall and the Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow

June 6 to June 16: Glasgow Science Festival.

July 10 to September 8 – Display of the painting James Watt and the Steam Engine: the Dawn of the 19th Century by James Eckford Lauder at the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh. August: Re-opening of the Watt Institution in Greenock.

August 23 or 24 – Carnegie on Watt, Bo’ness, details TBC.

August 25: 200th anniversary of Watt’s death. Events at 12 museum sites across Scotland.

August 25: Free talk on James Watt at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.

September: Doors Open Days festival in Scotland. Inverclyde is planning a Watt theme.

October: Watt at Kinneil House, Bo’ness, details TBC.

October 4: James Watt Dinner, Radisson Blu Hotel, Glasgow.

For more details on all of the events, visit the website jameswatt.scot.